Red Horizons: The NPA’s survival under Duterte

Miguel Galsim

Politics | Southeast Asia


Communist insurgents ambushing a police patrol and disappearing into the jungle is an image from a bygone era, but for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte the rebels of the Communist Party of the Philippines – New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) are a persistent reality. Having plagued presidents since the 60s, it is hardly surprising Duterte used his sanguine relationship with the Communists to kickstart peace negotiations.

Furthermore, with openly socialist individuals handpicked for policymaking positions, and negotiations continuing with the NPA’s political counterpart, hopes for a final peace are running high. However, the optimism surrounding a possible deal should not overshadow the questions of how durable a negotiated settlement will be, and if the deal will ultimately dismantle the NPA. And even if negotiations fail, especially given Duterte’s recent announcement to lift a ceasefire with the NPA, the insurgency may still defy government offensives.

Whether Duterte pursues peace or casts a heavy hand, the NPA will not necessarily demobilise during his administration. The insurgency survives off continued grievances in the countryside and the opportunities provided to it by a feeble state, as Patricio Abinales, Francis Domingo, and many other scholars have argued. Unless Duterte makes substantial strides towards resolving these issues, the NPA will survive.

Poverty in the Philippine countryside is undoubtedly a driving grievance that fuels support for the NPA. A mixture of infrastructure underdevelopment and social inequalities between wealthy landlords and disgruntled labourers creates a milieu from which the NPA can easily enlist grassroots support. With a sympathetic mass base, recruitment pools are ever-present, intelligence and offensive efforts against insurgents are frustrated, and the capacity to extract revolutionary tax from local businesses remains unimpeded. Significant government reforms toward a socialist system, or at the very least towards developing neglected rural communities, will be necessary to erode this foundation of NPA influence.

Herein lies the rub – the Duterte Government would face significant opposition to structural reform from entrenched business circles, who are likely to oppose progressive agrarian and labour reforms. Additionally, public support for policy concessions to the Reds is not guaranteed as the Social Weather Station’s Fourth Quarter report for 2016 shows. While it indicates that public satisfaction with Duterte’s reconciliation efforts is much higher than the attempts of his predecessors, the sample was not as enthusiastic for Communist reconciliation as it was for a majority of Duterte’s other policy initiatives. Allegations of broken ceasefires by Philippine armed forces could also allude to reluctance within the military establishment to show lenience to insurgents. Accordingly, the policy revolution desired by the NPA in order for it to disarm would encounter massive resistance from multiple sectors of Philippine society.

Even if the negotiation process succeeds (or continues positively), the NPA could actually benefit from policy reforms yielded by the discussions. With any government concessions perceived as the fruit of NPA pressures, outlets of grassroots support may be maintained. Anticipated prisoner releases will also bolster NPA morale and operative numbers. In addition, the legitimacy bestowed upon the NPA by the negotiations may lessen disincentives to the NPA’s financial contributors. If anything, Duterte’s negotiations will provide breathing room to the insurgency, rather than act as its death knell.

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Closely related to the Government’s policy struggles are its operational incapacities. A historical constant of the archipelago has been the central authorities’ inability to extend its coercive capacity to its more far-flung regions. As RAND reported in 2009, a factor of NPA sympathy is their ability to provide law and order where oft-corrupt government officials could not. Adding to the security apparatus’ troubles is the increasing need to build coercive capacities against other violent rebel groups and other states in the region, thus siphoning energy away from anti-NPA efforts. The result is a Government that cannot easily militarily eliminate or displace NPA insurgents, especially when insulated by local sympathisers.

The incapability of extending governance to NPA strongholds also poses another problem – even if the Duterte presidency is significantly more socialist, especially with prominent leaders of the left in policymaking circles, why would the NPA bother disarming if the armed forces lack the capacity to discipline these remote areas? Furthermore, why would remote communities support military and central law enforcement when a history of abuse by security forces still lingers?

So even if rural development is achieved, it does not spell the disarmament and disbandment of the NPA. A vacuum of effective authority would still exist in the hinterlands, of which the NPA will remain the locally-supported actor to fill this role. The Communists would also wish to retain a military capacity in case the government reneged on any aspects of the deal.

Regardless of the outcome of President Duterte’s most recent burst of anti-NPA rhetoric, the insurgency cannot be expected to disband or disarm. Until concerted efforts towards rural development and extension of governance are made under the new administration, the best case scenario for the negotiations is a pacified but operative NPA, continuing to survive on the margins where a weak government cannot yet displace them.

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Japan’s state secrecy laws still a secret

Aditi Razdan

Politics | East Asia


In the first year after Japan’s State Secrecy Law was enacted, various ministers and agencies classified 382 issues as state secrets.  The law is well into its second year, yet we still don’t know what actually constitutes a ‘state secret’.

Prime Minister Abe railroaded the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets (SDS) through the Diet, or Japanese parliament, in spite of 80% opposition from the Japanese public.  

As of December 2014, whistle-blowers can be imprisoned for 10 years if they leak state secrets, and journalists publishing this information face upto five years in jail and a hefty fine. The law targets terrorism, espionage and defence leaks, and at first glance, it is familiar and expected given the current reality of transnational crime and terrorism.  

Yet the media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, have warned that the law is an “unprecedented threat to freedom of information” and an “obstruction of peoples’ right to know.”

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So what makes this law potentially destructive?  It’s because it makes Abe and his administration the judge, jury and enforcers.  

The ambiguity of the law extends beyond the definition of a state secret. Government ministers and agencies determine what a state secret is, and oversight of these decisions is managed by a panel and committee appointed by Abe.  In actions that do not resemble the democratic principles Japan has been lauded for, there has been little public consultation, no parliamentary consensus on what a state secret is, and a lack of transparency in the law’s operation.  

Alarmingly, any agency or government minister can store a secret for 30-60 years.  This time period is longer than the tenure of a regular bureaucrat or politician, bestowing power to a government far beyond their democratically elected time in office.

Freedom of speech is enshrined in Japan’s post-war constitution; it has cemented Japan’s place as a free, democratic society and ensured trust in media and politics.  This recent law shifts the norm, making freedom of speech conditional and communication between politics and wider society a condition of the government.  

In a meeting, the Executive Controller of International Relations for state broadcaster NHK, Akinori Hashimoto, admitted that there was always tension between “politicians and journalists, but freedom of speech and competitive media ensured these tensions were stabilized”.  However, with these most recent laws, it is unlikely that the media could compete with each-other for so-called state-secrets, let alone compete with the government.

This has implications for every level of information gathering.  Whilst Hashimoto maintained that the state broadcaster remained independent, he revealed that the new laws “make it harder to find sources in the bureaucracy”.  The law is quietly strangling potential critique in a time where Abe has a sweeping grip on power.  Scrutiny is at the heart of democracy, and without it, Abe’s choices go unchallenged.  

This chilling effect is arguably more damaging than the law itself.  It is the threat of revealing a state secret that deters whistle-blowers and journalists, and the threat of breaking the new laws.  In such a way the ambiguity of the SDS was likely intentional to allow for discretionary operation by ministers and government agencies, as well as acting as a mechanism that scares people into silence.   

A state of fear and distrust is contagious.  

And where will people seek remedy? The only place that has answers-the government. This is the fastest way to reverse a culture where facts are dissected, truth is grappled with and opinions are not coerced.  

Katsumi Sawada is  a reporter from Japan’s oldest newspaper Mainichi Shimbon.  In his opinion, “The law shows that the influence of Abe has increased, as his personal opinions have influenced the law.”  Personal opinions should not override the opposition of a 100 million citizens.  But in a post-2014 Japan, it seems Abe’s do.  

Ordinarily, a country would have counter-measures that protect journalists and their sources from this type of law.  This source of protection is non-existent in Japan.  Furthermore, there is no “public interest override” that would recognize circumstances where the public interest outweighs any potential harms of disclosure.

It is difficult to measure the effects this law has had on free media in Japan.  When a state secret itself is not defined, it is nearly impossible to determine what media outlets can no longer report on. What is clear however is that this law, in all its vagueness, signals that the government are the ultimate arbiters of what is free and what is not.  This is blatant overreach and something that Japanese citizens did not choose.

In a time of constitutional change previously unseen in Japan’s post-war history, confusion over Japan’s nuclear energy plans and continued mismanagement of Fukushima relief efforts, open debate and dissent is crucial.  However, a monopoly on truth does make it much easier to govern.

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Respect Timor, Leste ye be judged

Dominic Huntley

Politics | Southeast Asia


Australia's relationship with our newest neighbour has reached a critical juncture. Timor Leste has successfully forced Australia into a conciliation at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague over maritime boundary disputes, and now Australia will be required to justify to the world its maritime claims, and to itself the righteousness of bullying a nation it often claims to have liberated.
The specific delineation of maritime boundaries in the Timor Gap is nothing new. In 1989, during Indonesia's rule of Timor Leste, a treaty was signed which gave Australia expansive sovereignty over much of the sea, including the rich seabed resources that are valued at some US $10 billion.
Since Timor Leste's independence the treaty has been revised twice, in 2002 and 2006. The 2006 treaty included the stipulation that no renegotiation occur for 50 years. In 2012 however revelations of Australian spying during the treaty negotiations prompted Timor Leste to seek revisions to the treaty due to the feeling that it had been signed under unfair circumstances.
Australian perfidy has not been just limited to spying but has also included a cynical withdrawal from compulsory dispute resolution procedures under the UN conventions on the law of the sea (UNCLOS) a mere two months before Timor Leste became independent in 2002. Australia has also been highly reluctant to accept international arbitration, claiming that the Permanent Court of Arbitration has no jurisdiction.
The irony of holding such a position in the face of Australia's strong support for the recent ruling in the Hague on disputed territory in the South China Sea and Australia's strong support for it appears lost on the Australian government.

For Timor Leste this is just another challenge to be faced in gaining recognition as an independent nation. A nation that was colonised for four centuries and then occupied for two decades must once again prove itself worthy of its own existence. Ironically of its two neighbours it is former ruler Indonesia which has demonstrated a willingness to renegotiate boundaries.
For Australia however this issue is not just about maritime boundaries, or even Australia's role as an international actor. This sort of issue cuts right to the heart of that most domestic issue of national identity. What sort of country does Australia want to be? What does it mean to be Australian?
Australia, like all the Western settler societies, has a historic tension in its identity. The juxtaposition of Enlightenment values and the extraordinary racial and gendered hypocrisy has resonated throughout the last 228 years of European presence on this continent.
This has applied to Australia's approach to its neighbours just as much as its approach to people at home. Australia was a proud colonial power for some eight decades, and abducted tens of thousands of South Pacific Islanders to work in conditions reminiscent of the antebellum American South.
The transformation of Australian society since the 1960s has been perhaps the most extraordinary and valuable events in this nation's history. A nation that loudly proclaimed its 'whiteness' has become one that enshrines the rhetoric of cosmopolitanism, truly the greatest achievement of our society.
It is however a work far from complete. A short excursion to the Top End, or indeed, a short conversation with anyone not a middle-class, White Anglo-Saxon male will show that there are still enormous gaps in privilege and power between different segments of our society.
This is replicated in our government's approach to the maritime dispute. A rich and powerful country like Australia has the responsibility to support our much weaker, vastly poorer neighbors. Attempting to gain advantage at the expense of a country such as Timor Leste is more a hallmark of imperialism than of the modern society we purport to be.
For a country with a history like Australia, there are a thousand and one hurdles to cross before it can be absolved of past sins. Missing even one is unjustifiable, but this is surely one of the bigger ones.
Australia not only takes on the role of a regional leader in the development, but views itself as being the sort of country that does those things. This identity can never be justified so long as we treat our neighbors with the sort of arrogance and disrespect that we are showing Timor Leste and its people.
Australian leaders should also remember the legacies of their predecessors, and how those people are now viewed. How many today laud the achievements of Billy Hughes or Stanley Bruce? How many are nostalgic for the days of Australian colonialism in the Pacific?
The answer is about the same as how many will be proud of our actions in the Timor Gap when our children come to write the history books.

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Media Control in China: Zhao Wei and Weibo

Jiamei Feng

Politics | Asia


Often when it comes to film all the drama plays out on the silver screen. Not so in China.

A recent controversy played out on Sina Weibo, regarding a romance directed by one of China’s most famous actresses Zhao Wei. It is a revealing and cautionary tale about how much control the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still has over the media.

Zhao has been forced to replace Taiwanese actor Leon Dai, and Japanese actress Mizuhara Kiko after finishing her new movie “No Other Love”, due to intense pressure on microblog site Weibo from both the public and Beijing.

Dai has a history of supporting Taiwan independence, while Kiko once visited Yasukuni shrine. Dedicated to dead Japanese soldiers, including those who fell in the Second Sino-Japanese War, the shrine has been condemned by the Chinese.

[gallery type="rectangular" ids="4199,4200"]
Weibo is a Chinese Twitter-like social media site, and the hottest microblogging service currently is Sina Weibo– the original inventor of the platform. It has various powerful functions, allowing users to insert rich media. The word limit for a basic microblog is 140 words, but users can edit and post “Long Microblogs” with lengthy text and multiple pictures.

[caption id="attachment_4218" align="alignnone" width="1346"] A screenshot of a microblog, otherwise known as Weibo[/caption]

Netizens can speak relatively freely on Weibo. Besides memes, commercials, news and harmless personal daily records, people use it to call out immorality, crime, and to criticise the political system – exposing injustice, corruption and the abuse of power.
Of course, this freedom is not entirely without limitation. Sina can delete posts and comments if they contain illegal content, or “sensitive words/information” unwelcome to Beijing, or the company itself.

For years, microblogs have served as a highly-valued justice tool. In 2016, however, things have started to change. Although netizens often criticize the CCP’s strict media control, they have paid more attention to Sina since the Zhou Ziyu Event.

The Taiwanese female singer insisted that Taiwan be an independent nation during her appearances on Chinese television. Angered, the public took to Weibo to ask her to apologise for the remarks.

Throughout the incident, a popular view emerged that Sina’s executives, in fact, support Taiwan independence, as the system deleted countless posts and comments in which furious netizens urged Zhou to apologise. Mistrust was bred.

The Zhao Wei Event is a replica of Zhou’s, but more serious and complicated. The movie was partly-financed by Alibaba, the country’s e-commerce giant as well as a major shareholder of Sina.

Three months ago when Zhao announced the cast on Weibo, her fans immediately realised that such choices would be a hidden danger to both Zhao’s movie and reputation. They kept reminding or questioning her about this on her posts, only resulting in deletion by the actress and her company.

The situation was inflamed on 25 June when she posted a joint photo with Dai to celebrate the movie’s completion. More protests appeared, while Zhao’s company threatened to sue, and Sina prevented users searching for the ongoing drama by blocking keywords.

[caption id="attachment_4229" align="alignnone" width="690"] The joint photo of Dai and Zhao that led to great controversy[/caption]
On 6 July, there was an even more surprising plot twist – the Party began to interfere. The official account of the Communist Youth League, a key element of the CCP, posted a long detailed microblog about the incident.

Although it used the word “alleged” when presenting Dai’s history of supporting Taiwan independence, the end of the article “kindly” reminded the public of three other movies which he stars in and will be soon on screen, and directly mentioned Zhao.

“Everyone makes mistakes – what is crucial is that you should be aware of and correct them,” it wrote.

[caption id="attachment_4263" align="aligncenter" width="604"] The screenshot of the article posted by the Communist Youth League on Weibo[/caption]

Making matters worse, Sina deleted the post after only 10 minutes, which led to unprecedented fury. As more political accounts got involved in the incident, Zhao finally threw in the towel and now the movie is in post-production.

Territorial unity is China’s most important political topic and nationalism is a mainstream ideology. The country is particularly sensitive to Taiwan. It may be seen as self-ruling from an international point of view, but in China it is considered an inalienable part of the territory. Any remark about independence can be a serious political mistake – as highlighted in both the Zhou and Zhao events.

And such control will continue to be stricter in the visible future. In February, President Xi Jinping stressed in a national speech the necessity of media’s subordination to the Party’s will.

Outside forces like business and the market might make some change in China, but they will never win the fight for dominance. Big Brother rules, as always.

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